A Stranger’s Reflections on White America

Growing up in Brazil, I experienced a childhood most parents would want for their children: carefree, safe, and almost recklessly innocent. I rode horses, took sailing lessons, threw birthday parties with mechanical bulls and bungee trampolines in my backyard. I ate sausages out of the packet and dressed up as a demon for Halloween. I would spend weekends over at my friends’ opulent embassy homes, meet their diplomat parents, skate on their polished floors in my sock feet and eat American candy. We had dogs and cats and goldfish at home. My parents were always around. My dad packed my lunch every day. As a teenager, my biggest problem was boredom, and my understanding of the world’s problems could basically be resumed as: some people are poor, and some people have money.

Like most children, I never really thought about the color of another person’s skin. I never paid enough attention to notice how the people who rode the buses in Brasilia, or cleaned the streets, or begged for money at the stop light, usually did not look like me. I didn’t have to pay attention. I had my father to drive me around in big cars–my father, a pale skinned man with a deep voice and a foreign sounding name, standing over 6 feet tall. Strangers in the street addressed him as “doctor,” as a term of respect, even though he has neither a doctorate nor a medical degree. I was his daughter. People treated me with the all the kindness and the self-gratifying generosity that they could afford to give.

My first few times in the United States were for Model United Nations conferences in Philadelphia, where the glamor and prestige of hailing from an elite private American school in Brazil’s capital vanished before the sheer commitment and investment of our true-blue American competitors. But we didn’t care. We would arrive one week in advance so that we had time to shop at the King of Prussia mall. The loads of clothes, bags, and goodies we would haul back home left us with a sympathetic impression of America, which I suppose in hindsight speaks volumes about how America selectively attracts foreigners and decides which ones to impress and which ones to spurn.

Then in 2011, when I was about to start my junior year of high school, my parents and I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, thus beginning a much more prolonged interaction with the US than I had previously experienced. I enrolled in the local public high school and quickly made friends. I rode the yellow school bus and saw a gay couple kissing in the hallway between class periods–something that shocked me at the time. I was privy to the most picturesque and classic aspects of American suburbia: prom, saying grace before meals at friends’ houses, watching the school marching band play. Because the context of my own comforts in Brazil differed just enough, the mundanities and quirks of American life that I witnessed in State College acquired fascinating, almost exotic proportions.

There was one quirk (for it was a quirk to me at the time) that I couldn’t wrap my head around, and that was the habit that people had of categorizing me as hispanic or latina. To be fair, I’m not sure if it was a habit. All I know was that I had gone to a clinic to get a vaccine, and I glimpsed the file that the nurse was looking at. Under “race,” it said “hispanic.” I left feeling annoyed and confused. Not only did the categorization carry with it the assumption that Brazilians spoke Spanish, but it directly clashed with my vision of myself as a far-flung child of Europe.

The label remained a point of semantic contention with me for a long time, but did not have any practical consequences in my life. My name is different and my hair and eyes are dark, but my skin was white and pale. If my American friends ever viewed me as a latina, a hispanic person, or even if they did not consider me truly “White,” they never treated me with the contempt that too many White Americans harbor for people who do not look like them or share their culture. When I walked into a store, no one looked at me twice. When I opened my mouth to speak, no one could tell I was foreign because I had learned the American accent so well. When I went to my friend’s Protestant youth group meeting, I worried about being the awkward tall girl, not the foreign girl or the girl with dark skin.

In 2012, we left the US, and I graduated high school in Brasilia. I knew I wanted to return to the US. Unlike so many of its own beleaguered citizens, I found myself embraced by America and its people. The culture fit me like a dress I could take on and off at will. Given that my skin was white and my English fluent, inclusion and participation in American culture was only a matter of how much I was willing to pay. I accepted an offer to study English at an American state university, which meant returning to the same small American town that had enchanted me so much.

By the end of my freshman year, I had acquired a boyfriend, Max. He was a principled, handsome, Catholic boy, an opera singer who was studying to become a music teacher for schools across Pennsylvania. I have never encountered someone who could represent conservative, Christian, anglo-America better than he did. He represented the peak of American excellence: discipline, shrewdness, creativity, charm, faith. He also unwittingly represented much of America’s sins: intolerance, ignorance, insularity, hubris, and patriarchy. Regardless of which side of America he represented any given day, he always did so with grace and poise.

He was the biggest reminder that the majority of those who purport to resist the ideologies that brought us Black Lives Matter, gay pride, or atheism are usually not enraged Twitter bots or racist media personalities. They are kind people who offer to mend your fence and watch your children. They pick you up at the airport and shower you with Valentine’s Day chocolates. Many are cultured and well-travelled. Their sin lies not in active propagation of alt-right websites or in outraged Facebook statuses about the “terrorist tactics” of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their sin lies in their devotion to the comfort of their lives and their beliefs, and in their crafty ability to negotiate when they should conceal their unpopular beliefs and when they can express them. Max studied music at a massive state school. His roommates ran the gamut from devout Baptist to cool gamer to hippy tree hugger. He was genuine friends with all of them. He knew when to pay lip service to diversity and when to undermine the experiences of Black Americans.

I found myself in the unique position of being an outsider who was afforded an insider’s view into the workings of White America. In the same way that being my father’s daughter meant that his status and power would make life easier for me, being Max’s girlfriend in the suburbs of Pennsylvania constituted an open invitation to a world that I had never fully entered. Yes, I had seen America’s shopping malls and outlets, seen the streets of New York and DC, and even sat in its classrooms and dining halls. But this level of immersion was unprecedented for me. Max and his family were treating me like one of their own. They envisioned marriage and children and picking out scented candles for the home we would share. Nevertheless–and this is a purely intuitive evaluation–theirs was a form of inclusion that predicated itself on erasure and assimilation.

Erasure and assimilation are harsh words. I do not intend to associate the kindness and the generosity of Max and his family with the trauma that comes from slowly or forcibly re-shaping someone’s cultural identity and heritage. Indeed, I never felt attacked, discriminated, or made to feel worse because I came from Brazil. But I did feel exoticized and objectified. I felt different, for the first time, and uncomfortably so. I felt a glaring gap in the way Max and his family viewed me and how I wanted to be seen by them. Sometimes things came up in revealing snippets of conversation or odd cultural exchanges. When I’d show Max a classic Brazilian song, he did not listen to it the way he listened to his recordings of Brahms and Fauré. He enacted silly imitations of the rhythm and the vocals, shaking his hips and spoofing what he imagined to be Brazil’s carnivalesque spirit. Even though he frequently sang in German, French, and Italian, he never learned more than a few words of Portuguese. When Obama passed the DREAM act, he and his cousin turned to me and quipped humorously, “Look, Obama’s letting your people stay in the country. Isn’t that nice?”.

I imagine this is what people call microaggressions. Whatever they were, I began to feel foolish and alienated because of them. Max did not see me, or did not want to see me, for who I was. He felt comfortable enough making his unfunny joke about the DREAM act to my face because he viewed me as someone who had transcended that deplorable haggle of brown people who died to cross the border every day. I was not like those “other latinos.” By virtue of Max’s gracious partiality towards me, I had been “promoted” socially, culturally, racially. In his eyes, I was not supposed to be offended, because I was not the butt of his joke. Being with him meant that I was the one making the jokes now.

I began to question my identity more intensely than ever. At that time, I had outright rejected the hispanic label, and actively fought against the “latina” label. My prejudice against latino culture ran strong, and hearing my mother telling me that Brazilians were latinos too only strengthened my resolve. Every now and again, I vocalized this outrage to Max and his friends. Max responded by teasing me good naturedly, crying out “ay ay ay!” and saying nonsense words in Spanish. He never assured me I wasn’t latina. But then again, he didn’t know or care much about identity struggles and their impact on people in the US. He didn’t have to care. His whiteness was never called into question.

Max is no longer in my life. When I ended our relationship after a year and a few months, he concealed his hurt behind a surface of restrained gentility. He asked, “Maybe we’re fooling ourselves. Maybe we’ll never work out, with you being from Brazil. If this is what God wants, then so be it.” He hugged me and said he’d always love me, then he walked back up to his dorm and I never entered his world again. I traded it for parties with international students, friendships with Americans who spoke French and studied Arabic, and wild hookups with people with whom Max would not have been friends. The decision to end the relationship strengthened me personally and as a woman, but in terms of where I stood regarding race, I remain as ambivalent as ever.

To many Americans, I imagine, I am not a person like them, though my skin is pale and my English fluent. Perhaps it is a matter of worldview and degree of exposure to different languages, different skin colors, different foods, different movies and songs. Perhaps it is a matter of culture, and the inherent incompatibility in reconciling a culture that demands cold punctuality with a culture that prizes intuitive spontaneity. Perhaps it is a matter of gender, and how as a Brazilian woman, my role in the average American’s imagination consists of little more than being a hot foreign date. Perhaps it is a matter of religion, and how I am simply not devout or God-fearing enough for America’s Bible belt. Perhaps it is a matter of poorly defined and subjective racial categories–many of my White American friends see me as the sexy, tan Brazilian, someone who can pass as White but is in fact the token foreign friend. Perhaps to some people the definition of non-White can be expanded to include anyone who provokes the slightest discomfort or hatred in the hearts of White Americans in the same way neo-nazis consider Jews to be non-White, or the way the KKK once included Catholics in their list of undesirables.

Clearly, I am not the first one to learn new names for old colors under the light of the American sun. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter anymore. In Brazil, I am White. In the US, if asked, I self-classify as a White latina. In some circles I may even be considered a person of color because of my ethnicity and my cultural upbringing, but I cannot objectively agree to that categorization, not because I feel shame in the label, but because I do not feel worthy of its empowerment. My light skin gives me the ability to flit back and forth between muddy categories of race, culture, and identity in ways that darker skinned people can’t. Only a few years ago I rejected any association with Latin American culture or the latina identity, when in fact I clearly benefitted from inclusion in that identity but was also granted immunity from the discrimination and prejudice that many latinos face. The truth is that I represent the kind of immigrant that most Americans would not find threatening, as long as I didn’t ask them to appreciate to my culture’s music or understand our subtleties.

Racism is perverse and intentional. As I mentioned before, it seduces the decent, kind, charitable masses first. I am no exception. My insistence on rejecting the latina label without even pausing to think about why I disliked it testifies to the rabid way we in the West are encouraged to aspire to be “White.” Even when we, White people, are one percentage point away from having almost 100% European ancestry, we still feel the need to show we have good taste, to prefer Paris over Rio, to prize soft and flowing hair, to enjoy classical music, to wear refined and restrained clothing, and to read the writings of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. We are constantly asked to prove our fidelity to Western culture and to suspect foreign cultures. Most people comply without question. Most of them, like Max and his family, are good people, who compost their food scraps and support you when you say you suffer from anxiety. But until those masses of good Americans–those masses of good Europeans, those masses of good light-skinned people of all races and ethnicities, those masses of good rich folk, those masses of good men–suffer some kind of turbulence in their own identities, some kind of realization of the implications of their own privileges in life, until they experience the jarring discomfort of realizing that they are an “other” in a stranger’s land, I don’t anticipate that much is going to change.




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